Some thoughts on improving the OSS experience.
I don’t think I mentioned it directly here (perhaps partly a cause and effect of the recent blogging hiatus) but the Google Pocket Guide has recently been released. Hurrah! It’s a book I worked on with Rael and Tara (nice work, you two!). Talking to people at O’Reilly last week at OSCON, it seems the guide is selling well. Hurrah again!
It was a very interesting time. Rather than mainly authoring, most of my work was editing, restructuring, and adding some new content. In the past, I have denied the existence of a somewhat strenuous attention to prose detail, but I guess I finally have to admit that it’s there. I really enjoyed the challenge, although it was hard work using a combination of Open Office‘s word processing program and MS-Word. Give me DocBook and a proper editor any day (I wrote Programming Jabber this way).
Well, OSCON 2003 is over, and I guess all the attendees are more or less home by now. I got home on Monday night, after a detour to work in London. Tons of ideas and inspiration came forth during and between sessions this year, like the last two years I’ve attended. It’s a double-whammy — if you go to a session, you get a chunk of very interesting info about subject X. If you don’t go to a session, you get to exchange ideas with likeminded people; ideas that you’d be hard-pressed to find otherwise. Great stuff.
It was lovely to meet old friends and make new acquaintances. Amongst others, I met some of the Jabber guys (pic), plus Matthew, Steve, Gnat (and family), Paul (pic), Randy, Edd, Dave, Rael, Christian, Geoff, Tom, Joe, Leon, Ask, James, and plenty of other Perl and O’Reilly folk. I even managed to say a brief “hi” to Nat.
Even when we weren’t having fun, we were having fun. The author signing event was great; Piers and I were drinking beer to celebrate the end of our talk (which had just finished) when we were snapped. Our talk had included live demos against an SAP R/3 system, which I was running on the diminutive Sony Vaio laptop (128Mb RAM, PII-233, 12Gb HDD) that you can see in the picture. While preparing the system the day before in the speaker room, the work processes decided for some reason to recompile all the ABAP components, which almost killed the laptop. The HDD went mad for minutes on end, and made funny noises, which Graham promptly likened to the sound of a deep fat fryer in action. I’m thinking of renaming the laptop to “chip-pan.local.net”.
I’m sitting here in a wonderful arcade of 80s arcade games, listening to Rush, arguably the best rock band ever, drinking beer, and enjoying WiFi, all courtesy of Stonehenge, and in particular Randal Schwartz, the maverick entrepreneur who happens to be a great teacher of Perl.
Stonehenge is hosting a post-OSCON free beer and games afternoon/evening event here in Portland; the place is packed and everywhere I hear the sounds “oooh, I remember this” or “aah, I used to be good at this game” from people rediscovering Galaga, Donkey Kong, Centipede and many other classic computer games from the 1980s.
I discovered Perl, and subsequently the power of Open Source, through Randal. Way back when, I discovered Randal’s magazine columns on Perl. I regularly printed a column out, and took it to lunch with me to study. Getting back to the office, I used to enthuse about what I’d just learnt about “this new language” to my work colleagues (including Piers). I got to know Perl well, and haven’t looked back.
Miguel de Icaza and Nat Friedman were keynoting at OSCON this morning. It was a great talk about the Mono project and a cool demo of Dashboard. I managed to convey some of the presentation to the #dashboard folks who couldn’t be present. It was also really refreshing to see source code, system exceptions and actual open source on the big keynote display.
I discovered dashboard this week thanks to Edd, who has been doing some neato hacking with some dashboard front and backends already. Dashboard shows itself as a little GUI window on which information sensitive to what you’re currently doing (receiving an IM message, sending an email, looking at a webpage, for example) is shown.
The heart of dashboard is a matching and sorting engine that receives information (in the form of “cluepackets” – how evocative is that?) from frontend applications (like your IM and email clients) and asks the plugged-in backends to find stuff relevant to that information, which is then displayed in the sidebar-style window, designed to be glanced at rather than pored over. It’s a lovely open architecture in that you can (build and) plug in whatever frontend or backend lumps of code you think of.
I’ve been musing about an SAP backend – wouldn’t it be interesting if the engine could get a match from R/3 on a purchase order number, for example? Of course, there’s nothing out of the box on the R/3 side that could be used, but as our talk at OSCON (hopefully) showed, there are plenty of opportunities for the wily hacker.
And what about Jabber? While glueing Jabber stuff onto the front end is one thing, building a pubsub style Jabber backend could get really interesting; coordinated matching, CRM style features … Ooo, the world definitely could get very lobster-like.
And I know it annoys Nat, but I just had to point out that the GraphViz output for matching clues looks very arc-and-nodey … and we all know what that leads to :-)
On each occasion I’ve travelled to the USA, either on business or for pleasure, I’ve entered the country with a rather bitter taste in my mouth. Each and every time I’ve been grilled by rather demeaning and unfriendly customs and security employees. I landed and went through security and customs in Minneapolis, and yet again was seething at the condescending nature of the person behind the desk. Even an attempt to make polite conversation with the person putting the bags through the scanner resulted in me leaving the area convinced the people were unable to see beyond their jobs.
Does it have to be this way? We have airports and security in Europe too, you know. But what we also have is a sense of politeness and courtesy and the willingness to treat people like, well, people.
Of course, it goes without saying that the sweetness comes from the excellent time I know I’m going to have this week with everyone at OSCON. I’m sitting here right now in the hotel lobby and I know a week-long brane-melting experience awaits me!
In the past, I’ve mentioned to friends some of the thinking I’ve had about the Semantic Web, RDF, and related stuff (FOAF, RSS, and so on). Yesterday’s stuff, for example. On more than one occasion the response has been along the lines of “where are the apps — why are you thinking instead of doing?”. They don’t get it. First of all, there are apps, toolkits, libraries, and so on. I don’t think I have to point them out.
But secondly, and more importantly, whatever happened to knowledge and discourse for its own sake? From studying RDF, for example, even at the fairly superficial level that I have, I’ve exercised my mind thinking about hard questions of language, expression, relationships, identity and semantics. While the concept of a Semantic Web platform is simple (a vast homogenous database spanning the world of information), its nuts and bolts, the substructure of concrete, steel and ontological rivets are submerged under a sea of meaning, nuance and interpretation.
Anyone can say anything about anything
Thinking about this stuff is rewarding. Did you go to college and learn only about stuff that directly related to the job you do now? No, I didn’t either. I may have written one or two Latin comments in my code in the past, but that’s as far as it goes :-)
I’m grateful to all those people (the REST, #rdfig and #foaf people, plus people at the W3C and elsewhere) for being ever helpful, friendly, and enthusiastic in sharing their knowledge of such interesting topics.